Masseria is best known as a fashionable destination for the refined Italian cooking of Nicholas Stefanelli. Since March, however, the restaurant near Union Market has been offering patrons a choice between the owner’s menu and a seven-course spread paying tribute to chefs, past and present, who have helped put Washington on the food map.
Enter the deliciousness of Yannick Cam, Nora Pouillon, Gerard Pangaud, the much-missed Jean-Louis Palladin and other admired talents — “people who have served as an inspiration in my career,” says Stefanelli, who also watches over Officina at the Wharf.
A chance to dine back in time? Of course I bit.
At Masseria, the chic of Cam’s French-inspired Le Pavillon is revived in a first course that combines scallop glace and fluke brandade — imagine a warm seafood custard — in the shell of an egg supported in what appears to be a silver nest. Bits of lobster lend sweetness to the dish, which is capped with a generous spoonful of golden osetra caviar. Aptly, a mother-of-pearl spoon is used to empty the shell.
Cam, who opened Le Pavillon downtown in 1978 and continues to cook at Bistro Provence in Bethesda, says the luxurious launch “started as an amuse-bouche, like a lot of dishes” at his formal Washington restaurant.
The tribute’s second course is a celebration of produce: red and gold beets, poached in vinegar and arranged on a plate with sliced kumquats, diced feta and a trail of sumac. Pouillon, whom Stefanelli knows from charity dinners for Martha’s Table, was an early and forward-thinking leader in America’s organic movement, going so far as to use soy ink to print her menu and triple-filter the water at the onetime Restaurant Nora in Dupont Circle.
Among the headliners at the late Gerard Place downtown — aside from Pangaud, the youngest-ever two-star Michelin chef from France — was poached lobster with ginger, lime and sauternes. The acclaimed French chef, who Stefanelli met as an instructor at the Maryland-based L’Academie de Cuisine, spent time with the chefs at Masseria so they could better replicate his signature. Unlike at Gerard’s Place, the lobster is served out of its shell, but on a familiar bed of sauteed spinach, with creamy balls of avocado. It is a pleasing dish, if not the sparkling combination I recall from Pangaud’s glory days in the city.
Diners smell the next plate — sweetbreads treated to truffles, an homage to Palladin — before it’s set down. Black truffles appear in the form of matchsticks atop the crisp-custardy organ meat, and as part of a sauce circling the poached and roasted delicacy. For the duration of the dish, which is rooted in southwestern France, you’re smacking your lips at Jean-Louis at the Watergate, one of the best restaurants ever to grace Washington.
Stefanelli spent two years cooking for Roberto Donna, first at Galileo, then at Laboratorio del Galileo, Donna’s intimate restaurant-within-a-restaurant. Both are long gone, but their finest moments are captured in a turban of tagliolini draped with an herbed quail ragu. The eating is made fun thanks to a groove in the plate where the pasta, topped with a quail egg, can be twirled around its fork. Stefanelli says “everyone loves the pasta dish,” the highlight in an evening stacked with them, including optional lubricants.
Sated? Stay seated. There’s more, specifically textbook-perfect lamb: crisp shoulder and blushing loin wrapped in a mousse whipped up from leg meat. The lamb cuts huddle on their plate with carefully pared vegetables and a winy reduction, tributes to the founder of L’Academie de Cuisine, Francois Dionot. (Stefanelli is a graduate of the school, which closed two years ago.)
The late Michel Richard of Citronelle in Georgetown started his career as a pastry chef. No surprise, the legend is recalled with one of his hallmark desserts, an elegant riff on a Kit Kat bar that went on to spawn copies around the country. Alas, those lucky enough to have enjoyed the indulgence when Richard presided over his four-star dining destination are likely to be let down by the ordinariness of the candy bar as served at Masseria. The confection conjures the right flavor, but not the fine crunch. And Richard was all about texture in his food.
A preview in March brought together the living chefs, some of their associates and the woman who critiqued their work: my predecessor, the legendary Phyllis C. Richman. “What was interesting to me was that I could identify some of the chefs’ work, even though the dishes were not prepared by the chefs themselves,” the former Washington Post food critic shared via email. “Jean-Louis’ dish was unmistakably Jean-Louis’, and Roberto Donna’s pasta was clearly a dish of his.” While acknowledging that “the field was small,” she suggested the dinner made a point: “a great chef can and should be distinctive.”
The tribute menu will be offered at least until the end of May, maybe longer, says Stefanelli, who is considering lightening some of the offerings if it continues. Good call; as is, the parade is exceedingly rich. Expensive, too. With wine pairings and gratuity, dinner runs $500 or so a head, about the price you’d pay for a night at the world-class Minibar by José Andrés.
Think of the evening as a chance to taste some of the best work of some of the city’s culinary pioneers — a curated and decidedly filling history lesson.
1340 Fourth St. NE. 202-608-1330. masseria-dc.com. Seven-course tasting menu, $195; optional wine pairings $175.